This is our fourth sermon in a series looking at the life of Moses. Enjoy!
SCRIPTURE – Exodus 14:10-31 – As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord.11 They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” 13 But Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”
15 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. 16 But you lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground. 17 Then I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them; and so I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots, and his chariot drivers. 18 And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gained glory for myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers.”
19 The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. 20 It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.
21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. 22 The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 23 The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. 24 At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. 25 He clogged[a] their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.”
26 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” 27 So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28 The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. 29 But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
30 Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31 Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lordand in his servant Moses.
Delivery Man Sermon Series
#4 – Troubling Water
July 12, 2015
We’re continuing our sermon series today on the life of Moses as we arrive at what is probably the best-known part of his story, the crossing of the Red Sea. Before we read the passage, let me provide a little context so that we can better understand it. When we last left the story, God was giving the Israelites their instructions on how to avoid the 10th plague, which was the killing of all the first-born in Egypt. By painting lamb’s blood on their doorway, they ensured that God would pass over them.
The Israelites are finally given the OK by the grieving Pharaoh to leave, so God begins to lead the Israelites out of Egyptian territory, using pillar of cloud in the daytime and a pillar of fire at night. Meanwhile, Pharaoh takes some time to reflect on his decision to free the Israelites and realizes that he just released the bulk of his country’s workforce, so he has a change of heart. The Bible actually says that Pharaoh exclaims, “What have I done?” So he gathers his army and chases after the Israelites before they get away. We pick up the story from there (READ SCRIPTURE).
When I was about eight, I visited my grandmother in Southern California. One of our tourist-y stops was taking a tour of Universal Studios. I got to see Bruce, the mechanical shark used in Jaws, and several of the set pieces from “The Six Million Dollar Man.” If you remember that show, you are officially old! But the thing I was most excited about doing was driving through the water special effect that was used to film the crossing of the Red Sea in “The Ten Commandments.” I was always fascinated by how they filmed that scene. I imagined going through this elaborate construction with water towering over me on either side. And I admit I was a bit scared. Should I wear a life jacket? What if Bruce was in the water?
So imagine my disappointment when we get to that part of the tour and our trolley arrives at what looked like a glorified puddle. The water was pushed aside using two glass walls and our trolley drove through it. The water was about knee-high, which made me glad I decided against the life jacket. I was so excited to finally figure out this mystery, and yet when I got the answer it was not nearly as satisfying as I had hoped.
That same thing can happen when we start asking questions about the “special effects” of the Bible. When we read a story like this our minds start to race about the nuts and bolts of what happened. This is especially true in our modern age, when science and technology make so many things understandable that back in ancient times would have been considered supernatural. Could you imagine explaining to Moses that today, if he wanted to communicate with all the Israelites, he could send a mass text message? That would have made his life so much easier!
We have to be careful about getting bogged down in the questions a story like this raises. Scholars have wasted forests full of paper trying to explain what actually happened here. But I choose to take this story at face value here, because where it happened and how it happened and even if it happened ultimately don’t impact the meaning of this story for me.
That meaning is one of great importance for us today, and it continues a theme we’ve already seen in Moses’ story. Remember, when we started a few weeks ago the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt with no hope in sight. They were at a dead end. And yet, God finds a way to lead them out of slavery. In our story today, the Israelites are at another dead-end – literally! The path they are taking out of Egypt leads them to the Red Sea, and Pharaoh and his pursuing army block any escape route, leaving the Israelites completely stuck.
So, in the first of what will be many, many “customer satisfaction surveys,” they say to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” Wow, the Israelites can be a little snarky when they’re upset, can’t they? They conclude by saying, “It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”
As the Israelites see it, they only have two options: slavery or death. Being held captive or dying. That’s the place where the Israelites are left this morning. But Moses knows there’s another way. With God, isn’t there always another way? Haven’t we already seen that our God is a God who breaks through dead ends? Abraham and Sarah were at a dead end when they couldn’t have children. Jacob was at a dead end when his brother Esau wanted to kill him. Joseph was at a dead end when his brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt. And then God breaks through the barrier in front of us, and suddenly there’s a path when there used to only be a wall.
So Moses tells the Israelites, “The Lord will fight for you, you only have to be still.” The English translation can’t convey the anger that was in Moses’ voice, but a more literal translation of the two-word Hebrew passage is, “Shut up! How dare you grumbling in the face of God! How dare you limit God to your humanly-conceived options! Don’t know you that God is on your side? Isn’t that enough?”
So, using Moses, God makes a way out of no way, parting the sea and allowing the Israelites to walk through the waters to dry land. There is so much awesome symbolism in this story that the Bible geek in me is about to have an aneurysm! This is really meaty stuff. First, let’s deal with the connection between this story and the very beginning of the Bible. When we talked about Moses’ birth story, we made the connection between the boat in which his mother put him and the ark that Noah built. Both were stories of new starts for the Israelites.
The author is doing the same thing here in even more powerful ways. If you remember the creation story, you remember the first thing that happens is that God’s spirit hovers over the waters and brings order to the chaos of the creation. God says, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let dry land appear.” And then God creates the plants and animals and insects and gives Adam dominion over them.
What we have in our story is the reversal of that creation. Those plants and animals and insects that humans are supposed to control – things like frogs and gnats and flies – rebel against the Egyptians in the ten plagues. Then, at the Red Sea, God takes the waters that God gathered together at Creation and separates them, allowing the Israelites to pass through. In Genesis, the appearance of dry land brings forth life in the form of creatures. Here, the appearance of dry land gives life to the Israelites. This moment in the history of Israel is a time of new creation, a fresh start for God’s people as they are released from slavery into the freedom God has for them.
It’s not the first time, nor will it be the last, that Egypt plays a role in the story of God’s people. Abraham spent time in Egypt. Joseph was a slave in Egypt. Jesus’ parents fled to Egypt when Herod tried to kill him. All roads to freedom lead through Egypt, through a place of exile, through a place of captivity. Freedom does not come freely. It is earned through trials; it is earned through perseverance and stubborn, persistent hope in the face of a dead end.
The story tells us that once the Israelites safely reach the other side of the sea, they looked back and saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. They looked back and saw the thing that had kept them in slavery, the thing that had oppressed them and held them back, lying dead on the seashore. And seeing that, they believed in God and God’s care for them.
All roads to freedom lead through Egypt. What’s your Egypt? What have you gone through, or are going through, in order to reach the freedom God has for you? Are you a slave to technology, or to your calendar? Are you held captive by anger or resentment or greed? Are you in bondage to the voices that tell you you’re not worthy of being loved or forgiven? We all have an Egypt.
But we also have a God who has parted the sea for us. We talked last week about how the Passover meal that Israelites shared has a strong connection to our celebration of communion. Today, when we as Christians talk about passing through the waters, we are referring to the baptismal waters. Jesus has gone ahead of us and parted those waters so that we may enter just as he did, dying with him as we go down and being resurrected like him when we come up. Through Christ, we have been delivered.
So we do we still live like we’re captive? Why do we choose to stay captive in Egypt rather than explore the freedom we’ve been granted? Why do we live with fear or anxiety? Why do we live like God’s provision isn’t enough, God’s grace isn’t enough, God’s love isn’t enough? Maybe it’s easier to stay in slavery than to forge a new path. Maybe it’s more comfortable to remain captive than to do the hard work of change. Better the devil you know than the God you’re not sure about, right? Better to stay put than to walk into the troubling waters that might lead to freedom.
But here’s the thing: We are not waiting for God to trouble the waters. We are not awaiting God’s deliverance. God’s deliverance has already come through Christ. It’s our choice whether or not to pass through the waters from death to life, to leave comfortable captivity for unpredictable freedom. But make no mistake about it: We’re already on the other side of the sea. Because we have passed through the waters of baptism, we can look back and see whatever has held us back lying dead on the seashore, not because of what we’ve done, but because of what God has done for us.
The Israelites thought they only had two choices: remain in slavery or die. They never imagined that there was a third option. But we’ve seen it, read about it, experienced it. We’ve heard Jesus tell us that he has come to show us a better way, better than being slaves to sin, better than being resigned to death. We are standing on the other side of the sea! We have passed through the waters! Don’t you know God is on your side? Isn’t that enough for us to start walking toward freedom? We are walking on dry land! Why would we choose to live any other way?